Geek Speak: Kip Warner, project lead for Avaneya
Kip Warner is the project lead for an ambitious science-fiction game under development called Avaneya. While the game’s release is years away, the free-software project marked a milestone in November with the release of a DVD-ROM called Avaneya: Viking Lander Remastered.
A local software engineer and ethical hacker who graduated from the University of British Columbia, Warner put out Viking Lander Remastered through his company, Cartesian Theatre Corporation. Viking Lander Remastered allows users to see images of Mars that were captured by NASA’s Viking landers in the 1970s. Warner developed technology to recover the archived images, which had been stored in an archaic format and needed to be decoded.
The international team working on Avaneya undertook Viking Lander Remastered because they want the setting of the game—Mars—to look as realistic as possible. The DVD-ROM is being sold for $15 to raise funds for Avaneya’s development, and Warner is considering launching a crowdfunding campaign. When it’s completed, Avaneya will be a free download for the GNU operating system, but players will pay a monthly access fee for its online multiplayer component.
The Georgia Straight interviewed Warner by phone.
What kind of game will Avaneya be?
It’s a cerebral science-fiction game set on Mars, and it’s currently under active development. I would describe it as the perfect blend of the Metropolis city builder social simulation, real-time strategy, and cooperative multiplayer. I would say it explores mature themes in social justice, politics, ecology, economics, and more. It’s at least geared towards those with passion for hard sci-fi and software libre. But there’s people that play games of all walks in life, and I think this one in particular will be no different.
Why is it important for you to make a game like this for the GNU operating system?
There’s quite a few reasons. We believe in the importance of free software, and we find that free software is no longer a hacker novelty. You might have been able to use that justification in the ’90s, but today you’ve got tens of millions people worldwide using it. People of all walks of life—from laymen to major motion picture studios and cutting-edge research. Free software, of course, it’s not just about saving money. That’s not really what free software is about.
People are very conscious now, especially in Vancouver and the West Coast, about the way that we’re living—young people in particular—and we’re learning more and more every day. When you go get groceries, people are conscious of where their food is coming from, the true cost of the economic impact those items and other things have. Many are trying to make more ethical choices in the products and services they are dependent on in other areas of their life too.
What’s interesting is that, while we’ve seen movement in those sort of things—where our clothes are made and so on, and shoes—we still tend to select our favourite programs for use in our computers as purely individual choices that are based on technical merit. But like the food we eat and the way we travel, everything is connected and there’s always a social and environmental context. We like to think of free software as the organic movement of software.
It’s similar to the open-source movement. But whereas the former is more concerned with technical values, the free-software movement is an extension of that—taking our concerns more to the social context as well. We’re interested in advancing these values that define free software. They’re defined as respecting everyone’s four fundamental freedoms: freedom to run the software, freedom to study how the software works, freedom to share it with your neighbour, and also freedom to share modified versions of it with your neighbour. This is something proprietary software doesn’t do. Proprietary software divides users. It doesn’t create the same sense of community that free software does.
What is Avaneya: Viking Lander Remastered?
Avaneya: Viking Lander Remastered has got a really interesting story behind it, and one that can really only begin with its parent project—Avaneya. Avaneya, as I said, is a cerebral science-fiction game currently under development for GNU and derivatives such as Ubuntu. Ubuntu has got something like over 10 million users worldwide. But the game takes place in the not-too-distant future in a real region of Mars called Utopia Planitia. That’s the actual name of the region. As with any game, you’ve got artists involved—it’s not just engineers—musicians and so on. The artists need high-quality reference material. Such an archive actually exists of this specific region of Mars. This was captured in the 1970s by NASA’s historic billion-dollar mission to land on the Red Planet and photograph its surface. This was the most ambitious space project in history at the time. It was actually the first one to land on the surface. Up until then, no one knew what it looked like.
The problem was that the way the mission stored the photographs made it impossible for a layman to access the fruits of their labour decades later. I know it sounds strange: how could NASA screw up something like that? But you have to remember that this was after more than a decade of failed Russian and American missions, so they were more living in the moment. They weren’t really all that concerned with a long-term archival strategy any more so than you and I might be in accessing our text messages today 20 years from now.
So no one today seemed to have the technology to access the archive. We confirmed that with NASA. We sought to solve that problem constructively, both to meet the needs of our artists and to provide the general public with access to a mission they had already paid for with a billion dollars of public money, and also as a source of revenue to help us continue to fund development of the parent project by crowdsourcing sales of the end result. The end result was, of course, the Avaneya: Viking Lander Remastered DVD.
Our product doesn’t just come with a disc full of photos. I thought that would be kind of lame. Actually, the original mission data, as it was stored on the rotting magnetic tapes they were salvaged from, is all on there—14 gigabytes. The software is intended for any layman. The DVD has a simple point-and-click interface. It does the entire recovery process in real time on your own computer without any need for advanced expertise. It was very important that we make this as successful as possible to reach the widest audience.
How did you recover the Viking images of Mars?
Originally, it wasn’t even our goal. It was not part of the plan. We just went and looked for them. We asked NASA, and they said the archive is all available online. It’s been in the public domain for decades. The problem is that there’s nothing you can do with it. We went back and said, “We don’t know how to open these files.” The data has been preserved, but it’s kind of like getting an email attachment that you can’t open. The data’s there, but you can’t do anything with it. It took us quite a bit of correspondence to conclude that they don’t have the ability to open up most of this data anymore, or, if they do have the technology, they’re not willing to share it with us or the general public.
In the spirit of free software, we thought that the best thing to do was to reverse engineer the technology and build our own decoder for the data. It was risky, because if something like that takes a lot of time, it’s going to take money. But I made the judgment call to say that I think this is going to be worth our time to recover this data for many reasons—not just the crowdsourcing aspect.
Sci-fi people are really annoying. They’re tough to please. There’s certain liberties that you can take with other genres of games, but in sci-fi you can’t. In fantasy, you can make fire-breathing dragons, and that’s okay. But in hard sci-fi—the people who are your fans—there are experts in meteorology, in geography of Mars, and so on, so you have to make sure you do your research well. We thought it would be worth our while to try and make the game’s visual experience as realistic as possible.
For someone who has never heard of Avaneya or isn’t interested in free software, why should they be interested in the Viking Lander Remastered software?
The important thing for those people is that there’s a whole other dimension to this project and that is they get the possibility to explore Mars, to see Mars the way that mankind first saw Mars. There’s been many missions to Mars since. The Curiosity rover is there now. But this was the very first time we ever went to that planet and landed successfully. Up until that time, there had been many, many missions, and they all failed catastrophically.